This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
As a faculty member of the University of Utah, I am writing to correct some common and unfortunate misconceptions regarding the proposed accommodations policy at the University of Utah.
The creation of the proposed accommodations policy arose from a settlement agreement between the university and Christina Axson-Flynn, who claimed that the university violated her rights to free speech and free exercise of religion by requiring her as an actor in training to perform scripts that contained language that offended her religious beliefs.
I fully respect Ms. Axson-Flynn's integrity and admire her courage. Nonetheless, the central conceptual issue at hand is not one of students' rights vs. faculties' rights, or of academic freedom vs. religious freedom, or of a particular set of religious beliefs vs. another. It would be unfortunate if policy, or our community, were to become polarized along such lines.
Rather, the central issue is what constitutes the appropriate criteria for determining the content of an academic curriculum.
The key guiding principle is straightforward: Curricular decisions should be based on legitimate pedagogical concerns.
As indicated in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision of the Axson-Flynn case, " . . . the First Amendment does not require an educator to change the assignment to suit the student's opinion . . . so long as . . . actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. . . . A more stringent standard would effectively give each student veto power over curricular requirements, subjecting the curricular decisions of teachers to the whims of what a particular student does or does not feel like learning on a given day. This we decline to do."
Further, " . . . Religious speech is speech, entitled to exactly the same protection from government restriction as any other kind of speech - no more and no less."
The proposed University of Utah accommodations policy, presently in draft form, is partly correct in that it would not require legitimate curricular content to be modified in order to accommodate personal, non-pedagogical concerns. However, it errs in two fundamental ways.
First, it would explicitly allow curricular decisions to be based on religious or secular beliefs that have no reasonable relationship to legitimate pedagogical concerns and that may not be questioned, no matter how extreme. This goes against the very nature of the academic enterprise, which is one of open and honest inquiry, and seriously compromises any meaningful attempt to balance conflicting principles.
Second, it would institutionalize a policy of religious discrimination by allowing assignments to be required for particular students but not other students on the basis of students' beliefs, rather than legitimate pedagogical criteria. It would allow texts to be excluded on the basis of the author's religion, or race, or gender, even when these factors are not pedagogically relevant.
More popularly, it would allow texts to be excluded because they contain (or don't contain) language that students consider profane. In each case, the principle is the same.
At home, my family prays together nightly, and I will defend our right to do so. But, as an educator, I do not have the right to alter my courses' academic content, my teaching, or my grading simply to accommodate my personal, non-pedagogical religious or secular beliefs - or the beliefs of others, including students, colleagues and the populace at large.
This is true irrespective of whether those beliefs are popular or unpopular, whether or not alternatives are available, and whether or not accommodation is mutually agreeable to faculty and student. The proposed accommodations policy violates this central principle.
An academic-based curriculum by no means implies that academics are more important than religious or other core beliefs. Most religious persons would opine that religion is more important than, say, athletics, but would also rightly hold that it is inappropriate for a referee to base a call on an athlete's religious background, because the athlete's religion is not reasonably related to the athletic concerns involved.
I fully endorse University of Utah President Michael Young's stance against religious discrimination in all its forms, including potential abuse of faculty power and pretextual or discriminatory application of academic requirements. I also fully endorse measures to ensure that this policy holds true in practice as well as in principle.
But the bottom line is this: The best way to ensure both academic integrity and religious freedom is to base curricular decisions on pedagogical, not religious, criteria.
Dr. Gregory A. Clark is an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Utah.